Modes are something that have been used in music for centuries and they refer to a type of scale. They used extensively in guitar playing and are an important concept to grasp if you want to take your improvisation and music writing to the next level. Guitar modes are something that confuses a lot of players, so let’s break them down and explain the music theory behind them.
The Seven Different Modes
To get right to it, the seven modes are:
- Ionian (Major)
- Dorian (minor)
- Phrygian (minor)
- Lydian (Major)
- Mixolydian (Major)
- Aeolian (minor)
- Locrian (diminished)
What does each of those mean? To explain, it’s better if we use an example, so let’s use the G major scale (you can use any major scale).
The G major scale is G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. This is the 1st mode, or the Ionian mode. The Ionian mode is always just the major scale. It goes on from there.
- G Ionian (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,1) (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G)
- G Dorian (1,2,b3, 4, 5, 6, b7, 1) (G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G)
- G Phrygian (1,b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 1) (G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G)
- G Lydian (1,2,3, #4,5,6,7,1) (G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G)
- G Mixolydian (1,2,3,4,5,6,b7, 1) (G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G)
- G Aeolian (1,2,b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 1) (G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G)
- G Locrian (1,b2, b3, 4,b5, b6, b7, 1) (G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G)
The difference in each mode lies in which notes are either raised or lowered by a half step. The pattern is the exact same no matter which major scale is used. Every Phrygian mode will have the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes lowered a half step, every Lydian mode will have the 4th note raised a half step and you can see this pattern illustrated above.
You can apply that principle to any major scale, and the Ionian mode will always be the original major scale.
But, where does this pattern come from, and are you just supposed to remember which notes are raised or lowered? While you could, here’s any easier way you can derive any mode in any key you want using the major scales.
How to Derive This
If you don’t want to just remember the pattern of which notes are raised or lowered a half step, use this method. For this example, let’s use the C major scale. Here’s another way modes are commonly written out.
- C Ionian: CDEFGABC
- D Dorian: DEFGABCD
- E Phrygian: EFGABCDE
- F Lydian: FGABCDEF
- G Mixolydian: GABCDEFG
- A Aeolian: ABCDEFGA
- B Locrian: BCDEFGAB
Notice that these are all the same exact notes but just in a different order. The Dorian mode starts on the 2nd note, the Phrygian starts on the 3rd note and so on. It is now called the D Dorian because it starts on D.
This means that the C major scale is the same scale as the D Dorian, the E Phrygian, and all of the others derived off of it.
So, let’s say you wanted to derive the G Dorian scale. First, you’ll need to determine which major scale has G as its 2nd note (because Dorian is the 2nd mode). That is the F major scale, so the G Dorian is just the F major scale. This can be done with any note for any type of scale.
That’s the basic music theory behind modes, but how are guitar modes actually used in playing?
Uses of Modes in Guitar Playing
Using modes are important tools for improvising and soloing. For example, let’s say you are the lead guitarist about to play a solo while the rhythm guitarist is playing a chord progression in the key of GM.
Let’s say you wanted a major sounding scale, so you choose to solo with the G Mixolydian. So, what major chord has ‘G’ as its 5th note? (Because the Mixolydian is the 5th mode). That’s the C Major scale, so the G Mixolydian is just the C Major scale. That will give you a Mixolydian sound when played over a progression in the key of G.
Similarly, they could help you write music based on the key you’re playing in and the chord progression. If you are writing a song in the key of Em, you could write a riff using notes from an E Dorian scale. E Dorian just means whichever Major scale has E as its 2nd note, which in this case would be a D Major scale.
Enough reading about modes; let’s talk about how you can to start to implement them in your guitar playing now!
How To Start Using Modes
Reading about guitar modes may be a little confusing at first, and it is one of the topics that guitarists struggle with to comprehend. Don’t be discouraged if you are having a hard time because it’s something that may take a while to fully grasp.
The best thing you can do with using modes is to experiment with them on your guitar. You’ll need to know all 7 major scales and you can go from there. Start with one major scale, whichever is your favorite, and play the 7 different modes based off of that scale.
Get a feel for what each mode sounds like. Each mode really just has a distinct sound that you can’t read about; you truly have to hear it in person. Now that you have some basic knowledge about guitar modes, it’s important you practice them yourself to hear how they sound.
From this, you will find what your favorite and least favorite sounding guitar modes are so you can decide which ones to use when soloing. First, determine what key you are playing in, then decide which mode you want to play, and use the methods we talked about to derive the mode from a major scale.
It will take practice, but by doing this you should start to have a full comprehension of how you can use modes in your everyday playing.